Academic journal article Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

The Changing Arctic - Asian Response

Academic journal article Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

The Changing Arctic - Asian Response

Article excerpt

Planet Earth experienced the tenth-warmest recorded temperature in 2011 and the concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere touched new levels. At the same time, the extent of the Arctic Sea ice was the secondlowest recorded and its volume was the lowest ever. It is forecast that the Arctic region may be ice-free in the early part of the current century and would therefore require robust mitigation and adaptation measures sooner than anticipated. The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Control (IPCC) has noted that

In the Arctic, during the 20th century, air temperatures over extensive land areas increased by up to 5°C; sea ice thinned and declined in extent; Atlantic water flowing into the Arctic Ocean warmed; and terrestrial permafrost and Eurasian spring snow decreased in extent.1

The adverse impacts of climate change are therefore quite visible in the Arctic region.

This paper highlights the impact of global warming on the Arctic region and the opportunities and challenges that have emerged from this phenomenon for Asian countries. It begins by highlighting the climate-induced changes and the impact of greenhouse gases in the Arctic region. The paper argues that melting of the Arctic ice and the evolving politico-economic and strategic developments in the region have been noted by Asian countries, who see the region as an area of immense economic and strategic importance.

Climate-induced Changes in the Arctic

The Arctic region has been witnessing a steady increase in temperature, resulting in shrinking of the ice cap. Satellite data since 1972 showcase that the extent of the Arctic Sea ice has been reducing at 11 per cent per decade.2 On 9 September 2011, the United States' National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) announced that the extent of sea ice dropped to 4.33 million sq km (1.67 million sq miles), the lowest in 2011, i.e. 160,000 sq km, only 61,800 sq miles above the record minimum extent in 2007 and 2.38 million sq km (919,000 sq miles) below the 1979-2000 average minimum.3 NSIDC director Mark Serreze painted a very dismal outlook for the Arctic and remarked that the summer ice cover could disappear entirely by 2030, leaving nothing but a heat-trapping "Blue Ocean".4

Another recent study states that the Arctic Sea ice is shrinking rapidly and may vanish altogether by 2015, making the Arctic ice-free.5 This will impact not only the flora, fauna and indigenous people of the region but will have far-reaching effects on the global weather conditions, causing new patterns in droughts and famine, changes in the intensity and frequency of cyclones, impact on agriculture and human lifestyle, rise in sea level, and mass migrations.

There are also fears that as the Arctic ice melts, it would result in the release of greenhouse gases such as methane that is trapped under the permafrost.6 Methane is regarded as twenty times more potent in trapping heat than carbon dioxide. It is estimated that currently 1672 billion tonnes of carbon is trapped under the permafrost.7 According to a report by the British Antarctic Survey, in the past 800,000 years methane had never tipped 750 ppb (parts per billion), but is now 1780 ppb, suggesting that there are signs that permafrost has begun to thaw.8

As the Arctic experiences warming and the permafrost thaws, carbon would leak into the atmosphere in the form of methane, thereby generating a cycle wherein carbon is released, causing a rise in temperature. It has been noted that the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, spread over 810,000 sq miles, is a new source of greenhouse gases.9 Similarly, huge quantities of frozen organic matter, deposited and preserved over hundreds of years, exist in Alaska, United States, and the Far North in Canada. These are indeed very worrying signs.

New Opportunities

Although climate-induced changes have caused much anxiety in the international community, they have opened opportunities too. These emerge in the form of new shipping transit through the Northern Sea Route (NSR), living (new fishing grounds) and non-living resources (oil, gas, coal, iron ore, other metals and minerals) and tourism (cruise liners). …

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